The Armory Show

Americans have always been practical people.   As a nation of immigrants, we’ve had to be.  So it comes as no surprise that in 1913, when America first got a peek at Modern Art, it was baffled.  Some people made fun of it:

Some  people got angry.  They burned a copy of this painting:

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907
  • Matisse, Kandinsky, Braque, Duchamp and others were labeled agents of “universal anarchy.”
  • Chicago art students hanged Matisse, Brancusi and Pach in effigy.

Americans were horrified, but they couldn’t look away.  After New York the show traveled to Chicago and then to Boston. Over 300,000 people saw it.   If you’re fascinated, this site has everything you could possibly want to know:

Here are some of the works that drove the public crazy.  See what you think:

Georges Seurat, The Models, 1888
Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of Adeline Ravoux, 1890
Albert Pinkham Ryder, Seacoast in Moonlight, 1890
Paul Gauguin, Words of the Devil, 1892
Henri Rousseau, The Centenary of Independents, 1892
Edvard Munch, Vampire, 1893-94
Paul Cezanne, Old Woman with a Rosary, 1895-6
Paul Signac, Port de Marseille, 1905
Odilon Redon, Roger and Angelica, 1910
Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, Saut du Lapin, 1911
Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911
Pablo Picasso, Le Guitariste, 1910
Francis Picabia, The Procession of Seville, 1912
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912

They found Nude Descending a Staircase particularly offensive.  It was labelled “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

Why did this painting cause so much controversy?

It puzzles me now, almost 100 years later. Was it because a moving nude was “indecent?”  But that seems a stretch – you can barely tell it’s a person. Maybe the public was offended because it was based on motion study photos. Those photos were taken for scientific, not aesthetic (or salacious) reasons.

Speaking of that,  maybe the ugliness of the usually celebrated female flesh offended some. Or maybe  it was just that the painting forced you to take sides; if you liked it you were hip,  if not, (and almost everyone hated it) you weren’t cool enough to get the joke. Most likely, it just became famous for being famous – like Paris Hilton.

I don’t know. The work made Duchamp’s name, but he gave up painting after this. It was easier to make a joke with found objects, or  “readymades” as he called them.  (He also liked to spend his free time playing chess).  That brings us to our next lecture:  Dada.

But before we go, here’s a poem about the work:

Nude Descending a Staircase

X. J. Kennedy

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,

A gold of lemon, root and rind,

She sifts in sunlight down the stairs

With nothing on. Nor on her mind.

We spy beneath the banister

A constant thresh of thigh on thigh —

Her lips imprint the swinging air

That parts to let her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears

Her slow descent like a long cape

And pausing, on the final stair

Collects her motions into shape.